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Book Review: Uncovering Student Ideas in Physical Science: 45 New Force and Motion Probes by Page Keeley

See my Recommended Reading Links for a Link to this Book at NSTA

What's In This Book: Assessments Geared for Secondary Teachers :-)

I bought this book, "Uncovering Student Ideas in Physical Science: 45 New Force and Motion Probes" last year at the NSTA National Conference in Philadelphia and dutifully put it in my bookcase and forgot it. I unearthed it the other day, while going through said bookcase during a rare fit of zealous decluttering. (Is it because I'm a teacher that books, even outdated ones, are so hard for me to let go of?)

Anyhow, Keely is well-known for her "Uncovering Student Ideas in Science" series of books, in which she deftly summarizes current research into common student misconceptions regarding key science concepts. From this review of the scientific literature, she then develops assessment probes designed to help us teachers "uncover" those ideas in our classrooms.

The problem for me, with the original series, is that the content ranged over many different scientific disciplines and seemed geared to the younger grades. There were maybe a handful of probes in each of the first three volumes that I thought might be useful to me, teaching Physics/Physical Science at the high school level. So I took a pass.

Perhaps Ms. Keely recognized that many other secondary science teachers were doing likewise. Or, perhaps she just had some great new ideas for assessments. Whatever the case, she is now developing a new series of volumes that will be discipline-specific.

The first of these is "Uncovering Student Ideas in Physical Science: Vol.1: 45 New Force and Motion Assessment Probes" which was published last year. (This year, she released one for Life Science as well)

I just now finished reading the book and I am very impressed with the Probes. They are written in the form of one-page handouts that pose a situation or problem requiring knowledge of a core scientific concept (say, the universality of gravity). Students must analyze the situation and select "best" answers (or solve the problem). Finally, she always leaves several blank lines on which students must justify their reasoning in writing.

The probes often include distractors designed to uncover common misconceptions, as determined in the research. This allows teachers to quickly hone in on EXACTLY what might be tripping up our students, and to quickly determine whether re-teaching is required (if administered post-instruction).

They can also be used pre-instruction to determine the beginning level of understanding and/or tell whether students mastered the material to previous grade level standards.

Finally, after each probe, Keely provides an Instructor's Guide that explains the specific standard/objective being taught, including detailed content explanations, suggested instruction strategies, how to adjust for higher/lower grades, and also citations to the specific research findings used to develop the Probe.

Some of the probes ARE geared for lower grades, but in this volume, the vast majority can be used for Grades 6-12.

How to Use This Book with WBT

First, as we know, WBT is a toolbox of instructional strategies/classroom management that can be used with ANY content. But may of the probes in this book would lend themselves WONDERFULLY to WBT techniques such as Teach/OK, QT, and BrainToys. Many of the probes require the kids to JUSTIFY their reasoning, which definitely invites use of "Because Clapper."

The Importance of Concepts over Math and Proportional Reasoning

Finally, Keely really hit a nail on the head with me with this one. I hadn't been able to articulate it until I read it here in this book. She points out two key problems I've noticed with my kids:

1) They can crank through formulas (well, some of them can!) without really understanding the underlying concepts AND
2) They have MAJOR problems with "proportional reasoning" (as do many adults, according to the cited research)

I can't tell you how many of my kids can use a = F/m to solve acceleration problems. But if I give them a concrete situation and ask them to tell me how the acceleration of a given object will change when I REDUCE the net force on it (assuming mass stays constant, of course), they CAN"T TELL ME.

The more I thought about it, the more I see how proportional reasoning is a theme that runs through ALL of physics. So many physical quantities (at least in Newtonian mechanics) are expressed as proportions: Here are just a few:

Pressure = Force/Area Momentum = mass x velocity Average Speed = Distance/Time
Acceleration = Force/Mass

And let's not even get into Chemistry where they need it (proportional reasoning) to understand molarity and chemical reactions.....

(OK, Ms. Keely, you've convinced me: Forget the Standards! I've decided I would feel successful as a teacher if they learned NOTHING else from me but this one thing: Proportional Reasoning!)

(Hey Mr. V (my CEO) - if you're reading this, I'm just kidding about the standards ;p)

In Conclusion
If you are a teacher of Physical Science, or any Physics class at the secondary level, I highly recommend this book. It is full of practical formative assessments that you can put to use right away in your classroom and come away with a better understanding of YOUR kids' mis-understandings. I personally intend to use many of these in my classroom this year. (Just HOW, exactly, is what I need to decide next...)

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Welcome to my Blog about Whole Brain Teaching
at the high school level.

I teach ninth-grade Physics First (conceptual Physics) in an urban, Title 1 school in Northeast Philadelphia. I will be starting my 3rd full year of teaching this Fall, and my second year with Whole Brain Teaching (WBT). I started off fairly strong last year, but fizzled toward the end (falling into old habits is easy). I am the only teacher at my school actively using WBT techniques. When I try to explain what I'm doing to others, they still look askance at me. But hopefully they'll come around..eventually!

Anyway, I've started this blog with several goals in mind:
1) To keep me accountable (to the WBT community as well as myself) to consistently using WBT in my classroom - to this end, I pledge to blog at least once a week.
(I hope to do so more frequently, but don't want to make any promises I can't keep!)
2) To share my lesson plans/ideas/experiences with other WBT teachers, especially at the high school level.
( I feel like there needs to be more WBT resources for the secondary teachers "out there", so I'll start by making some contributions of my own)

Attending the National WBT Conference in Alexandria, LA this past June defninitely re-energized me. But now it's down to the nitty-gritty of planning for next year.

Speaking of the Conference, I'm really excited about the new 5-step WBT Lesson Planner. I don't think the 5-Step Lesson Format has been published in the Downloads area yet (except as part of the Conference packages). But here's a link to a forum discussion about it:

Also, I've created my own WORD document version for my planning purposes.
Check it out under my Links (at right), or directly at

My main goal this year will be to minimize the amount of time I am talking - really nail down the "micro-lecture" format. (Keep in mind my lesson planner is for non-lab days).

This goal implies making better use of "Teach-OK" as well, which I know I need practice with.

Now, if I can just hammer out a plan for my first soon as I do, I'll post it here. I'm not sure just how detailed to make my WBT lesson plans, but since this is a new format for me, I plant to err on the side of "more is better."